The truth of amazing grace, rather than the music, is actually more of what British pastor John Newton had in mind when he wrote the verses for a New Year’s Day sermon in 1773. The song was more like a poem then, and the traditional melody we all know and love was not attached to it until 1835, long after Newton’s death. Over the years the words have been sung to over twenty tunes, in fact, so we shouldn’t complain when someone does it to a different one than we’re used to. (Except when someone sings it to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island,” which I’ve heard—that we can complain about!)
The sound of the music is more sweet to the ears of people from all races and backgrounds because the truth of the words is so meaningful to them. And the history of the song is part of the reason why…
Grace was so amazing to John Newton because he had committed horrible crimes against his fellow man, and therefore against God. He’d been a slave trader in his former life, kidnapping African men, women, and children from their homes, transporting them aboard ships to the British colonies, and selling them there to the highest bidder. Along the way, if the slaves grew sick or the ship needed to be lightened in a storm, he threw them overboard to their deaths.
He traded over 20,000 Africans during his many years in that infamous profession, but God brought him to deep repentance for his sins, and forgave him when he put his trust in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to pay the penalty for even the worst kinds of sinners. So Newton wrote, “I once was lost and now am found, was blind but now I see.”
He also wrote, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,” highlighting an often-forgotten blessing of grace, and echoing the words of Titus 2:11-12: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” Grace is amazing because it convicts us of our sins, which all people have, not just slave traders. That’s amazing because by nature we excuse or minimize our faults, and think of ourselves as better and more deserving than we are. It’s amazing because our sinful pride and self-righteousness is so incredibly resilient…
H. A. Ironside tells a story of one time that he realized he had a problem with sinful pride, and a friend suggested that he spend a day walking up and down a busy street in Chicago wearing a big sign with words from the Bible on it, and shouting them so that everyone could hear. So Ironside did, and after he was done he thought to himself, “Hmm. I'll bet there's not another man in town who would’ve done that."
It’s amazing that grace is powerful enough to break through our otherwise indestructible self-righteousness to show us our need for a Savior. But of course grace is even more amazing because of the hope it then brings to those who are broken over their sins: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,” Newton wrote, “and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”
He also wrote, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come,” a portion of the song which is also pregnant with meaning. He’d inflicted horrible suffering on others, and he knew many kinds of suffering himself, not the least of which was living with the regret of his terrible crimes (and some people saying he shouldn’t be a pastor because of them). But grace had brought him safe thus far, and grace would lead him home—not just to heaven, but to meaning and purpose in this life. And God brought that meaning and purpose even out of his sins and regret…
Newton became a fierce advocate for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, and influenced a future politician in his church named William Wilberforce, who actually brought abolition to pass after more than twenty years of exhausting labors in Parliament. The Lord kept John Newton alive just long enough to personally witness the vote for abolition in 1807, right before died at the age of 82, and later a city in the African country of Sierra Leone was named after him, in recognition of his contributions to racial equality.
Which leads us to the verse about heaven in the hymn Amazing Grace: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” The word “we” is found three times in that verse, and it speaks of the sharing or fellowship of all kinds of people in past, present, and future grace. We all have shared the “many dangers, toils, and snares” in this life, we all will share eternity together, and it’s amazing grace that creates this fellowship between people of extremely diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.
I recently attended a concert where this song written by a white English slave trader from the 18th Century was performed by an African American grandson of slaves, who also happens to a be a dear friend and ministry partner of mine, though we are from widely different backgrounds. “How sweet the sound” of an amazing grace can break through any walls between us, because it’s already torn down the much bigger one between us and God.
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